Song for a Wake: Hauntingly Beautiful

I was woken up by something I’ve never heard before. Chanting or singing – I couldn’t quite decide which. Was I dreaming? I focused my gaze up and could just make out the timber ceiling beams in the grey morning light. Nope, I could still hear it. Spellbound and intrigued, I jumped out of bed and rushed downstairs to capture the moment. What you are listening to now is the audio-minus-video of the morning prayer of (mostly) elderly women chanting-singing before the body of my late grandfather.

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Less than week ago from this unique experience, my family just got back from our long vacation in the Philippines, gradually settling and returning to our usual pace here in Australia, when we received the terrible news.

My mother took it the hardest. Woken up by the wailing cries one early morning, I lie in bed taking in what this meant to me and my family. She would want to go back, and after some thinking and hesitation (I had my University orientation on the same week), and driven by the obligation of being the eldest son, I decided to accompany her back to Philippines for her father’s burial.

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I couldn’t comprehend what I was feeling, or if I was feeling anything at all. Not too long ago, that particular corner in the house had a sickly aura to it. He lay in his bed, fighting for his last days and at the mercy of God and other people. Bottles, pills and other sorts of things that offer any hope of recovery and comfort sit on a table next to him. However, its as if the veil of suffering has been lifted. The ceiling and walls were now dressed with drapes, the floor laid with a carpet and bouquets of flowers, increasing in number every night, surround him. The lamps lit the entire space, separating it as sacred from other rooms in the house. A cookies and cream candle was burning on a table – the same table. I’m not sure if the sweet scent coming from it was meant to be comforting.

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Everything that was happening in the house was centered around that corner, around the body. Literally living and sleeping with the dead for nine days and nine nights, I learned rituals and custom that are involved in a wake. Aside from the daily evening prayers and the occasional chanting-singing, one that really intrigued me was that someone has to keep vigil over the body for the duration of the wake. It wasn’t acceptable where everyone slept and no one is left to keep watch. I didn’t ask why but I imagined it has a deep spiritual and religious reason behind it. Another custom that I found ridiculous was that no one was allowed to take a shower in the house where the dead is present. I persistently asked why, but no real answer. Someone told me that the real reason was that because someone who keeps vigil over long periods, hence tiring his body, should not take a shower for the benefit of his health. But I believed that what really stopped anyone from taking a shower was that my grandmother was adamantly old-fashion, and no one would want to provoke her! I took my daily showers in a neighbor’s shower shack.

An Australian friend of mine shared how they celebrate the death of a loved one. It was very solemn – from the wake up to the burial. It wasn’t like that for me. Every day, members of the family and household prepare and cook a great amount of food to feed the number of people we were expecting every night. Tables and chairs were arranged alongside the veranda, and a couple of tent pavilions were even erected to accommodate them. Who were they? Anyone – relatives, cousins, friends, neighbors, colleagues and strangers! But what baffled me was that not everyone came to pay their respect and condolences.

It was ‘Jesus cleansing of the temple‘ (without the cleansing)! Most of the visitors out in the veranda were men, gambling with money, smoking and (possibly) drinking. And goodness, a good number of them looked young – possibly around my age! I was offended, but my mother assured me that we would rather have a joyful celebration of the dead than one that is full or mourning and sadness. I agreed. Not one of them dared to enter the kitchen or the house, respecting the privacy of both my late grandfather and his family. Any close family friends and relatives that arrived were welcomed into the house and kitchen. Despite the disrespectful behavior of some men out in the veranda, I actually saved a table among them for me and my friends. We played some fun card games, truth-or-dare and talked and laughed into the wee hours of the night while the aroma of coffee continued to hang in the air.

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I don’t have any photos documenting the requiem mass and burial and there are a lot of other things that I left out, but I hoped this suffices in painting a haunting and beautiful image of the way how a wake is celebrated here in the Philippines. Sorry for the inactivity. I have a handful of drafts waiting to be completed and published. Man, this is harder than I thought!

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